I’m sure established writers will find this quaint, but if you’re a debut author trying to sell a book during a pandemic, even the tiniest triumphs are miraculous.
Yes, I exist… and so does my book!
Yesterday, I visited my first bookstore in over a year today, Eagle Harbor Books on Bainbridge Island.
While perusing the poetry aisle, I was pleased to see my book on the actual shelf next to some poetry folks I admire (David Stallings, Jenifer Lawrence, Natasha Moni, Joannie Stangeland, Holly Hughes).
I know you can order my book from most every bookstore, but having a book on the shelf anywhere is so important to sales.
Without a book on the shelf, it’s as if it doesn’t even exist.
Remembering the good old days
The staff turnover at Eagle Harbor Books means all my decades-long contacts (aside from the wonderful and attentive book champion, Victoria Irwin) are now gone. The pandemic has further eroded what few links I still have with this independent hometown bookstore.
Still, I remember fondly my relationship to this shop, which began in 1999 when they eagerly entered my name in the local author’s directory (which apparently doesn’t exist anymore, sadly).
- Since then, I’ve given multiple readings by invitation from the booksellers in ensemble events featuring multiple poets or writers. I loved that feeling of belonging to my literary community even if I didn’t have a book to sell at the time.
- When I was director of the Field’s End Writers Conference and organizer of other related literary events in the community, I coordinated with them to set up the book sales portion for all of these events.
- Following Hurricane Katrina, I worked with Eagle Harbor Books on a gratis fundraiser to restore libraries in the deep South. I produced a limited series chapbook, Southern Revival: Deep Magic for Hurricane Relief; its sales achieved the goal of rebuilding an entire children’s books section at a Louisiana library.
- For the bookstore’s Speculative Fiction Writers Group (under the watchful eye of Paul Hanson, now at Bellingham’s Village Books), I volunteered editing and production services for Tuesday Night Publishing, which released two collections featuring local writers (Obliquity and Penumbra).
- It was so gratifying to see author Fred Loase, a former client of mine, launch his book, Chasing Redemption, at the bookstore just five years ago. He and I worked together when his book was still a nubbin of an idea. The finished product is fantastic, you should read it!.
The bookstore also served as a kind of second home for both me and my husband (whose jazz ensemble played there during first Fridays for years). It was my first stop for holiday shopping and you could usually count on it to be open during deep snow or a power outage. My kids grew up in the children’s section, frankly.
I hope I can maintain this relationship even after the pandemic, but the odds I’ll be able to read there are pretty much slim to none after making multiple inquiries.
There isn’t a first-time author alive who doesn’t want to launch their first book at their local bookshop. It’s a bit of a heartbreak, but then, so much of this effort to sell a first book during a pandemic has been an exercise in futility.
And yet, a pandemic miracle
I really didn’t expect Eagle Harbor Books to have a physical copy of my book sitting on their shelf, so to find one was a miracle to me. Thank you to bookseller Victoria Irwin, who I’m sure had everything to do with this.
Now if only I could do live readings… and maybe, by the end of the summer, I will.
Let’s go live!!
I’ve got a really short list of contacts elsewhere that I’ll approach; it’s a start.
Largely I expect a wall of “No,” but you never can tell.
In March, a Rhodes scholar and writing teacher who encountered me in a brief one-poem reading in a Zoom event bought my book and praised it. I had no expectation that this would happen!
If you know of a Washington state bookseller planning to open to live readings in the near future, pleasepleaseplease do let me know. There are literally hundreds of small independent bookstores to become acquainted with.
But let’s be honest: This thing called a pandemic has been a huge roadblock.
Bookstores have been closed for good reason, and as a high-risk, vulnerable immunocompromised human being, I’ve been locked away for good reason (self-protection).
Now that I’m vaccinated, I feel more confident about going out in public.
I’m hoping booksellers will be able to enjoy more event planning as we “flatten the curve.”
If they build it, people will come. People are starved for live interaction again.
Virtual isn’t working
It’s not only that I prefer live readings myself as a writer/poet.
Things have shifted, and folks (even poets who were gung ho six months ago) are going through some serious “zoom fatigue.”
The once-highly-attended virtual literary events of late 2020 and early 2021 are no longer a draw.
Stanford News highlights the four causes of virtual meeting fatigue:
- Excessive close-up eye contact is highly intense. (Yes, I can confirm this, and that intensity translates into “cognitive fog” in a big way.)
- Seeing yourself during video chats constantly in real-time is fatiguing. (I’m not a fan of the distraction.)
- Video chats dramatically reduce our usual mobility. (Ask my spine, my legs, my wrists for particulars.)
- The cognitive load is much higher in video chats. (100,000,000,000 percent true for me, and it’s costing me my writing life.)
Frankly, these virtual events take so much of my mental energy that the considerable legwork and (quite literally) brain drain involved does not translate into a sustainable outcome.
It’s not just about me
A reminder: Selling these books is not to benefit me, but to support an important nonprofit, the Accelerated Cure Project.
My virtual tour, which has largely been my only option as a small press debut author with zero publicity budget, has been a lopsided adventure, in which I literally put in about five hours of work in front of a computer (quite literally going against doctor’s orders) just to sell one book.
This is why it’s so critical to have a copy of my book on a bookstore shelf.
A person browsing poetry books cannot buy one
they don’t see on the shelf and don’t know exists.
Meanwhile, I can only do so much as a one-person, unfunded digital marketing acrobat.
(Please, no more recommendations. I’ve already done all the things, I’ve even tried to pay large sums of money to publicists, and yet that was a roadblock.)
The neurological obstacles that healthy people overlook
This is not about me being weak, unmotivated, lazy, or lacking in creative problem-solving. No, I cannot just “power through.”
…is spending five hours of virtual work to sell just one book worth my health?
This is something healthy authors don’t even have to think about.
And yet, my book needs to be out in the world. It needs to be read.
Let’s take it outside
I’m truly grateful to all who have attended my live events these last few months, but now that I’m vaccinated, I really want to be out in the world again sharing my book with people who want or need to read it.
And let’s face it: It would be physically and mentally easier for me to do so. The price my neurodivergent brain is paying to maintain this DIY digital publicity effort is not something I’d wish on anybody.
Do the right thing
Please get vaccinated if and when you can. You can literally walk up to some places and get the shot now. This will help open up the world in a way that is safer and better for the whole economy as well as our communities, who need to be able to gather.
Want to help?
Buy my book (if not for yourself, as a gift for someone else…) or request that your local bookseller or library system put one on their shelves. It makes a much bigger difference than you can possibly imagine.